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Zen and Poetry
Have you ever shown any of your poems to Daido? At one point I sent him a couple of poems, and I sent him a copy of The Snow Watcher when it came out. I didn’t expect him to respond, and he didn’t. He’s a very wise man!
How so? Daido has hundreds of students. I felt shy about sending him poems to begin with, as most of his students work at some art practice or other; it’s nothing special. But works of art express the consciousness that made them, express understanding. The poems I sent him touched on matters we’d discussed, so I meant them as a thank-you, and I assume he took them as such. No response was called for. If he had acknowledged them, it would have complicated the exchange, made it personal. It wasn’t personal. It was only a student thanking a teacher. The poems were just a bow.
How was the “Imaginary Dokusan” series born? When I was just starting out as a student, dokusan [a private interview with a Zen teacher] used to terrify me. It can still rattle me, as it should, but I used to try hard to figure out what I wanted to say, instead of just letting what was happening in the moment show. So I used to try to summarize whatever it was I was working on, and then realize that all my analysis was beside the point. I’d get stuck in a tape loop of practiced responses, which precluded my hearing and responding openly. I wrote the “Imaginary Dokusan” poems as a way of practicing how to simply present what was in my mind, even if the poems went in circles, or stopped on a question, which most of them did. I was trying to let go of my need to categorize what I was experiencing. All those poems address things I actually thought of bringing to dokusan, and then didn’t.
Can you talk a little more about how the idea of “letting go”—which helped you approach dokusan—helps you with poetry? The poet Elizabeth Bishop once remarked that “a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” was what was needed for the creation of art. Isn’t this a great description of zazen? Because each poem is a new mystery, the writer has to let go of any preconception about it in order to let it reveal itself. Otherwise, the poet’s self-regard fills the mirror. This can happen in many ways. For one thing, we’re conscious of the imaginary reader, whom we want to admire us. So the ego exhorts us: Sound smart, sound fascinating, sound sensitive and deep. This gets in the way of letting the language itself speak, which it will if we can get out of the way and just listen. That’s when we can surprise ourselves into saying things we didn’t know we knew. I think this is close to what happens in zazen. When the mind finally stops filling the space around it with its own noise, it can hear everything else that occupies the silence.
How was writing The Ghost of Eden different from later writing The Snow Watcher, which was written during the first few years of Zen practice? In The Ghost of Eden, I was aware from early on of the book’s “subject”—“subject” is in quotes because of course one never really knows where one is going (or shouldn’t). But at the same time, I knew that until then I had been avoiding poems that touched on the matter of our poor stewardship of our planet. Ecology poems were everywhere, and I thought most of them were covertly sentimental, and I also feared my own anger, which was significant. It made me reconsider Robinson Jeffers, who I think is a great poet. His extremity seems to me entirely appropriate to his passion. Of course he upsets people; they think he hates the human race (which he did say was “a botched experiment that ought to be stopped”). I shared his outrage and distress, and knew that my own poems would probably carry some of the same freight.
As I worked, though, I came to see the primary force of the book as one of grief, not anger. The anger was a shield. In retrospect, this is obvious, but I had to write the book to figure it out. The lesson, then, was not in detachment (which feeds anger, I think) but in passing through the emotion and out the other side. It turned out that “the ghost of Eden,” which I’d initially intended to be a description of our ruined paradise, was in fact me. I was the permeable specter, the inconstant thing. The world was just the world. This discovery was the beginning of my study of Zen.
At least a year passed before I wrote another poem. By then, I was visiting the monastery whenever I could. Practice completely derailed my old ways of working. For one thing, I couldn’t use the first person pronoun without hesitation. Who was talking, anyway? I struggled with this for months, reading mostly old Japanese and Chinese poetry: Han-shan, T’ao Ch’ien, Ikkyu, Hakuin, Su Tung-P’o, Ryokan, Li Po, Tu Fu, and of course the great haiku poets: Buson, Issa, Basho. Also the ancient, anonymous stuff and lots of poetry by Zen monks. Finally, I realized that I would have to abandon any sense of poetic authority and let that first person pronoun float, writing instead as a novice (both spiritually and poetically), full of ignorance and questions. At this point, the poems started to come again. As I got deeper and deeper into the work, I saw that all the poems were asking the same question that Zen asks: What is the self? Not who, but what. The Snow Watcher is the beginning of my struggle to answer that question.
In “To the Reader: If You Asked Me,” you conclude: “If you asked me what words / a voice like this one says in parting, / I’d say, I’m sweeping an empty factory / toward which I feel neither hostility nor nostalgia. / I’m just a broom, sweeping.” Where did this imagery come from?
I was thinking about the odd feeling that comes when a book is finished. There’s a detachment that sets in, as if your child had grown up and left home. I feel the same thing on a minor scale when a single poem is finished, but it’s stronger when it’s a whole book—four or five years of work. All those days in the factory, and suddenly I have no job!